I remember hearing Leonard Cohen being interviewed some years ago, and he said, when asked whether he minded being referred to as a ‘minor poet’, that no he didn’t mind at all, in fact he had spent many delightful hours in the company of minor poets, such as Herrick. My ears pricked up when I heard that. For some reason I’d never imagined Cohen sitting down and reading seventeenth-century English clergymen, but of course I was wrong.
Somewhere on my bookcase there is an old three-volume ‘life and works’ of Robert Herrick, acquired when the poetry shelves of second-hand bookshops had become my habitual haunt, and filled with the most delightful gems, many of which remind us that a clergyman’s life was neither dour nor dull. When I was growing up, however, I had to make do with what was on the shelves at home, and what was on those shelves was a strange mix of things. Books, I suppose, had been accumulated haphazardly, but sparingly, by both my parents over the years, so there were trashy airport novels beside gardening manuals beside the complete Wordsworth beside Pasternak beside the illustrated bedside book of cats.
At some point during those teenage years I happened across the Everyman edition of the poems of William Cowper. It was my first Everyman, small and cloth-bound – dust-jacket long gone if it had ever had one. It was, it announced, ‘No. 872 of Everyman’s Library’, and it promised a list of the author’s other works at the end of the volume. The list wasn’t there. ‘The publishers will be pleased to send freely to all applicants a separate, annotated list of the Library.’ I thought that perhaps they wouldn’t, since this copy was dated 1931. But the promise, the idea, of the vista opened by the Library made me instantly aware that what I held in my hand was a lot less than the at least 871 other volumes that were out there somewhere. All I could do then, though, was investigate the little corner I’d found.
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